Luke's Notes

Critical Academics in Theory and Practice

I've been writing an account of my time as a lecturer at Sussex University since 1990. Critical academics' inconsistency keeps rearing its head. This hasn't surprised me. It's been coming up for years. I've felt a bit alone perceiving it as a problem. But I got validation when, a few months ago, Lorna Finlayson wrote on the same question for New Left Review.

Finlayson argues 'academics exhibit a profound mismatch between self-image and reality. They pride themselves on being independent thinkers and see themselves as possessing a somewhat irreverent or subversive orientation toward authority. But in fact, this self-conception masks its opposite'. For my part, I'd focus this on critical academics, by which I mean those critical of the status quo, which where I am often means capitalism or at least neo-liberal versions of that. I'm not thinking of more conservative academics who are conservative in practice. They are quite consistent. It's the inconsistency of critical academics that's perturbed me.

Non-participating or complicit

One thing is the academic who is radical in their academic work but does not follow this up by participating politically. At Sussex we've had some impressive movements, for instance fighting redundancies in 2010 and opposing outsourcing in 2012-13. Students and the union organised action after action yet quite a lot of critical academics did not come to the protests or the meetings. It was usually the same staff faces who were there. We marched past offices where radical academics stayed ensconced. Sometimes there was probably a reason why they couldn't make the demo. But not more or less every single time.

This lack of political participation can have consequences academically. Sometimes political academics who haven't been active in the nitty gritty of political organising write naively compared to those who have got their hands dirty and have a better feel for the hard world they write about.

But lack of political participation isn't my main gripe. More serious than non-practicing radicalism is complicity. Here academics are not just passive about protests but take a step further and are complicit in acquiescing to seriously regressive processes and the destruction of the public university. This is about more than just not joining actions. It involves actively participating in the neoliberalisation of the workplace.

Many academics write against neoliberalism wholeheartedly. Yet when asked to participate in changes being pushed on to us, for example out of research or teaching auditing processes, rather than questioning what we are asked to do and asking for other approaches, they go along with it. It's argued that there's no alternative to doing so; the management will never listen or accept another way.

I have so often experienced the dismissal by academics of certain processes in society and higher education and then at department meetings automatic conformity with them on the basis nothing can be done. Suggesting we do not conform to what is being asked usually gets thrown out the window immediately. There is no point. I have sometimes felt seen as an immature or socially inept colleague when I blurt out that we could just not do what we are told and could resist. This feeling then, sometimes, drove me into the ranks of the acquiescent for a while.

Yet, my experience is that you can counter managers' approaches with logical arguments, which often benefit the managers themselves because you can point out a better way of doing things. It may often fail and it may be a chipping away process. But attempts are better than complete acquiescence. And it keeps open the agenda of alternatives. Lorna Finlayson says it nicely: 'Academics, it seems, are like the acquaintance who Dorothy Parker said "speaks 18 languages and can’t say “no” in any of them"'. It is totally pointless being an anti-neoliberal if at no point are you very willing to do anything about it, and take the stress and risks involved. Signing a petition against the latest ruse is one way, and some will do this. But, amazingly, many just will not, even though I know for sure they agree with the contents.

I'm not talking here about the Vice-Chancellor who wrote about slaying the neoliberal beast and then did the opposite. I would expect nothing else from someone who sold themselves over to the devil when they went into senior management. I am talking about the ordinary critical academic.

What is going on?

Of course, there are many people who do not fit the criticism above. This is by no means a sweeping tendency across all academia. To look at it more positively, since the pensions disputes at UK universities people who had joined the union as an insurance policy or out of a theoretical belief in unions, but who were otherwise a bit sneery about unions as sectionalist, economistic, or run by fusty old-fashioned types, started getting involved and radicalised in practice as well as theory.

But the complicity reflects a big enough tendency to make a real difference to what universities are like. It was a factor in me going part-time as a lecturer. I got depressed and angry by often being in a minority of one or two on issues like these amongst those who in theory were likeminded, but in practice were not following this up or were even being complicit. I could not keep it up 5 days a week. I would have almost been better to be in a context where I was in a tiny minority in my views rather than in a majority that would not act on it.

Lorna Finlayson has some possible diagnoses. Academics tended to do well at school and university, she points out. They didn't get where they are today without fitting in with hierarchical and authoritarian structures. They are likely to have a history of conformity. The rot did not set in with the marketisation of universities. It is more long-running and something to do with academics (or some of them) and academia. It has been contributory to, as much as a consequence of, the marketisation of universities. Although in the 1990s, my first decade in university teaching, when there was not much rebellion against top-down demands that was because there were not many to rebel against.

Certainly, the real radicals in action as well as theory that I have come across have more often been in places like squats, free education, or alternative social centres and the like. Many involved in these have just not been able to fit in psychologically at school or in the mainstream life of bureaucracy and capitalism. I haven't counted up the numbers, but it seems in higher education precarious academics are more often to be seen at the demo and arguing back, even though the radical professor is in a more secure position.

Also, academics are quite an individualistic bunch. It varies across them and what sort of work they do. But academia is generally quite a good profession for those who value autonomy. And it has a lot of competitive individualism in it, which works very well for management as a motivating tool. So getting on with your own thing can come higher up the agenda than activism in practice that matches your theory.

We are all inconsistent. I can't even start to count up where I fail to live up to my principles. At those demos I mentioned many true loyalists were there time after time. And, of course, the management are the real enemy (wait for my account of life at Sussex). But academics specialise in logical and consistent argument. In their own workplace at least, they should be extending that to logical and consistent practice.

Related blogs: On the Marketisation of Universities and Sussex Stories.